River Fording and Burnside’s Options

With the weather allowing, I spent most of yesterday tramping about the lesser known corners of Antietam. One such corner was Snavely’s Ford. If you are at the battlefield and have the time, the 2 mile walk starts at the Burnside Bridge tour stop.

History has not been kind to General Burnside with his choice of crossing points. Some, like Kyd Douglas, have stated Burnside may have crossed at any point other than the bridge and held some success. Others contend Burnside vacillated too long getting his Corps into position to cross by way of the bridge and fords. In the end, most will summarize the action on the southern half of the battlefield as another of Burnside’s hapless blunders.

However, and not trying to redeem Burnside in a larger sense, such dismissal of the General’s and his subordinates’ actions with regard to crossing the Antietam do not take into account terrain and more importantly the tactical requirements for crossing a body of water. I have discussed the later elsewhere with regard to Monocacy (see photo 3) and Early’s rather delayed crossings. In the Civil War period, and arguably the same rules apply today, when crossing a river under fire or at least with the threat of enemy resistance, a military unit requires several attributes for a potential crossing point.

  • First some form of cover on the friendly side behind which to form the body of men crossing the stream. And the far side should afford a covered area to re-form the troops into a fighting formation. Because a crossing requires changes to formation, from column to fighting line, such cover is important. You don’t want the troops changing formation, facing, and such while enemy fire is raining down. Or at least the leader would desire to minimize the exposure.
  • Second a position from which artillery or other covering force may fire upon the enemy to suppress resistance. Mahan’s An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guard, Out-Post, and Detachment Service of Troops, pages 80 and 81 offers more detail on this aspect of river crossing.
  • Third, the stream bed should be level, without holes or washes, preferably no more than waist deep. Less rocky is better, provided firm footing exists. If involving cavalry or artillery, rocks in the stream bed are an even more sensitive consideration. Approaches must be smooth with little embankment or wash.
  • Fourth, if possible, the crossing point itself should afford some concealment from enemy eyes.
  • Fifth, as indicated in Mahan’s, distractions and secondary efforts should divert the enemy’s attention.
  • Lastly, if the intention is to carry forward an offensive, the artillery and trains must follow. The eventual “beach head” must have some supply route that supports heavy vehicle traffic. Or wagons in the Civil War context.

To my knowledge, on the Ninth Corps front, the Antietam was crossed at three points. Of course you have Burnside Bridge. Then Snavely’s Ford. But also a ford point upstream from the Bridge where a few companies of the 28th Ohio (Crook’s Brigade) made a wet foot crossing.

The later point is just south of the modern Burnside Bridge Road crossing (thus to the north of the historical bridge).

Upstream from the Burnside Bridge

Looking from the famous bridge upstream, the 28th’s crossing point is just out of view, obscured by the trees along the bank. One can tell the ground on the left (Confederate) side is a gradual slope, compared to the bluffs overlooking the bridge. What the photo does not show, due to the trees and distance, is a creek running down from Sharpsburg joins the Antietam in that area. To the north of that, on the grounds of the Sherrick Farm, the Confederate side of the creek offered gradual slopes. In fact, if we reference Lieut. Col. E. B. Cope’s maps, there are no Confederate units posted in that sector. The crossing point offered a position to assemble a small body of troops, under the cover of artillery (Clark’s Battery was positioned just around the high ground where the modern road passes), and with a ravine on the far side offering some cover while the unit re-formed. However, the down side to the crossing point there was volume. No more than a handful of companies could cross at a time. There simply was not enough staging or re-forming space to do much more. As such, makes sense that only five companies of the 28th Ohio forded there.

Now looking at Snavely’s Ford, the crossing point allowed a little higher volume of traffic.

Snavely’s Ford

Again, cover on the far side to assemble the men, in this case behind a low ridge where full regiments, maybe brigades, arguably even whole divisions could form in column. On the “enemy” side, from which this photo was taken, the Federals had ample assembly area. However factors continued to limit troop flow. As seen at the ford point, the stream bed is rocky, and would slow foot traffic. The ford point is still narrow enough to restrict things down to a four abreast column. The far bank is washed out enough to slow both foot traffic as well as mounted and artillery. The crossing point works, but only if a better, higher volume crossing point is found to support the effort.

Lastly, we have the famous bridge.

Burnside Crossing

From the attacker’s point of view, looking across the bridge from the approaches. The down sides to this crossing point are clear – the enemy posses high ground on the opposite side. What is not clear, but anyone who has visited can attest, the friendly side (behind the camera) is a large open field which denies the attacker cover. The enemy side offers little cover for re-forming. And of course, there is precious little concealment. At 1 p.m. when the two 51sts stormed the bridge, suppression included artillery on the ridge near the Rohrbach Farm to the southeast, Clark’s Battery to the north east, and a ring of supporting infantry regiments around the east bridge approaches. The displacement is in line with Mahan’s description of concentration of fire. The bridge certainly would qualify as a heavy vehicle traffic supply route (it was used by motor vehicles until the 1960s if memory serves).

According to the Historic American Buildings Survey, the bridge spans around 125 feet at this point, and is 190 feet long including abutments. That is a far cry from the “hop, skip, and a jump” mentioned by Kyd Douglas. The creek banks, as all along this length of the course, are two or three foot drops to the water. And, while this writer has not taken the plunge, the depth even in summer is more than waist deep at points.

Taken in perspective, each crossing points offers advantages and disadvantages. None is perfect. I would make the argument the bridge fell in part to the deliberate attack of the two 51sts in conjunction with crossings up and down stream that turned the defender’s flanks.

If there is fault to be laid at Burnside’s feet it is not planning and synchronizing the movements earlier in the day. Knowing the creek must be crossed, and likely that crossing would be contested, then on the 16th elements of the Corps should have reconnoitered potential crossing points. Early in the morning of the 17th the Corps should have forced all points identified. However, none of this would happen in a vacuum. Walker’s division was in the vicinity at daybreak, not yet moved to the center of the battlefield. So it would not just be Toombs’ Brigade contesting the crossings. Of course, this throws a whole new chain of events into play. Now Lee’s counterattack of Sedgwick’s advance into the West Woods would have less punch.


3 thoughts on “River Fording and Burnside’s Options

  1. Interesting post Craig. I love these little what-ifs when backed up by research and some effort on the part of the blogger. The pictures really add to the descriptions of the sites, especially for those who have never been to Sharpsburg and the Antietam, including myself.


  2. Thanks for the kind words Brett. This post, like several others, are in reality a “brain dump” of my on site notes. Several months back, I realized many of my personal observations were being lost to the mists of memory. I’d spent six hours making one marker entry at HMDB, because my notes from a site visit a year earlier were just flat undecipherable. Blogging a visit helps me keep track of what I saw and what my impressions were at the time.

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